One of the great misconceptions is to think when people are suffering that they’re being punished by God. That’s not how He works… at least not now. In the Old Testament we read stories like Noah’s Ark where God flooded the world to start fresh (aka caused a mass genocide), how God erased Sodom and Gomorrah for being so vile, or how He punished the Israelites for their lack of faith and obedience (a regular occurrence in the OT). Back then, that’s how God interacted with the world. God directly spoke and interacted with them whereas now we have the Bible and the promptings of the Holy Spirit, which was introduced at Pentecost, after Jesus ascended to heaven. Eventually the Israelites were given the 10 Commandments and rules like being kosher, but all the rules were meant to protect the Israelites and remind them of their relationship with God (e.g. wearing clothes made with one material was to remind them there was one God when all around them were people who believed in many gods and not a sign God hates polyester). What most makes me think God MUST have been directly involved in the Israelite’s lives was other religions had shrine prostitutes, which meant followers of those religions got to have random sex with strangers to show their faith whereas the Jews gave up bacon. That doesn’t seem like a fair comparison. Either God was real or the Jews were messed up – bacon’s delicious! The key thing with the Israelites was God was very clear: If you follow me, I will bless you, but if you don’t… you’re in trouble. If you’re not familiar with the stories, there were some seriously gruesome times for them because of rejecting God including passages about parents starving so badly they ate their children to survive. Yes, you read that right. The OT is not a family friendly book.
God being directly involved was how He worked back then, but things are very different now, we can eat bacon… and we have the Bible… I guess the latter is more important. Some people who don’t believe in God believe in the power of positive thinking, but bad things happening aren’t the result of you having a negative thought. Bad things happen for other reasons, which we will look at below.
The idea that we’re not being punished is important to realize because when bad things happen, people try to rationalize them as a punishment to help the bad situations make sense. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. Our brains are drawn to reason and resolution, but when bad things happen sometimes all we can do is accept that life can suck and there’s no other rationality for it – on one hand life is a precious a gift and on the other, it’s rough.
The reason I want to be very clear on this is because it’s not uncommon for me to be asked why God is punishing them by not letting them get pregnant. Infertility and miscarriages are not a punishment from God just like someone else getting pregnant isn’t a reward by God for good behavior. If that was the case, why are there so many babies born addicted to heroin and crack? Pregnancy is about biology, and not a punishment/reward system by God.
Before we get into a list of why pain happens, first I’d like to point out that in Buddhism the major rule is all suffering is from attachment. We essentially suffer because we care. This means that love and suffering go together. If we never want to suffer, the simple solution is to never love or attach ourselves to anything. Personally, I’d rather follow the adage: It’s better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all. Life without love would be its own form of suffering… at least to me (Buddhists would disagree). This means I’d rather feel pain once in awhile than be numb all the time. It also means suffering is my choice, so I can now feel empowered. I’m not a victim of pain. I’m facing the natural results for the life I’m choosing because I’m choosing a life with love, which always has its little brother, suffering, tagging along.
Studying Buddhism in my first and second year university, I realized if my pain was the direct result of caring, it’s not something about which I should be angry at God. Before that I would go through phases of asking, “God why would you let this happen?” But if I didn’t care, it wouldn’t have mattered. Besides, where does it say God will stop bad things from happening? That’s a twisted version of how we should see God. God is love, but love doesn’t prevent suffering, especially since some of the best stories and life lessons come from it. Besides, if we were all made to make our own choices and if there are at least a handful of dumb people in the world (a handful… sure) and even the smartest people can have dumb moments, we are guaranteed to have some bad times. God lets us be dumb, which mean there will be repercussions. This basically mean suffering isn’t evil in itself, but suffering is often the result of evil.
Reasons We Experience Pain
- Pain we cause ourselves: It’s amazing how much of our pain is caused by us. Sometimes our pain is caused by our choices like buying a dog when we don’t have the time, money, or energy for it. Other times it’s just the natural repercussions for breaking the rules. If I do something unhealthy, something bad will happen. For instance, as a therapist I sit so much I have back problems – that’s the result of my career choice. This idea of choices leading to pain goes a step further: Whatever activity we do, we are accepting the possible repercussion. Like taking medicine that has a list of potential side effects, there are risks. When we drive a car, we are accepting the risks that go with it, which includes death. When we play sports, we are accepting the risks that we can be seriously injured. When we have steel plants in our cities or manufacturing with certain chemicals, we are ultimately saying we’re okay with the increased risks of cancer and killing the environment for the benefits those products give us.
- Pain from a bad perspective: Sometimes the pain we feel is from looking at the situation from a glass half-empty point of view or we want to feel sorry for ourselves. For instance, how many people who are single have thought, “It’s not fair. Why can’t I find anyone?” instead of “I’m single; I have freedom to do what I want!” or a married person thinking, “It’s not fair. I never get to do what I want.” instead of “I’m so glad I’m not single and struggling with what I do with all my free time.” I’m not saying we should never feel down because we’re single and lonely or married and frustrated, but perspective makes a big difference in how much pain we feel. Reflecting on how it can be worse is a helpful exercise when we feel down. A half-full perspective is always best.
- Pain comes from our body trying to get our attention: I hate having back pain (especially if it’s from sleeping – what should be the safest of all activities), but it’s my body’s way of getting my attention to say something is wrong. A lot of our pain including slivers, cuts, bruises, skinned knees, and broken bones are our body’s way of saying, “Help!” The same goes with our emotions. So many people with anxiety and depression try to numb the pain without listening to their body: (dumb person) “I’m having stress issues. Maybe my body is telling me to reduce my stress or learn to deal with it better… Nah, I’ll just drink/smoke up/have an affair/take pharmaceuticals to shut it up… huhn, is it getting worse? Better increase my coping tools. I don’t want to actually deal with the problem.”
- Pain caused by a direct attack by others: Because we are created to have free will and make our own choices (i.e. we’re not puppets being controlled), there is a risk of people attacking each other whether with insults, criticisms, fists, or slander to destroy people’s reputations. I argue this last category is the worst form of attack, yet social media deems it acceptable. Bruises heal, but emotional scars don’t.
- Pain caused by collateral damage from others’ bad choices: People making bad choices can hurt them and it can end up indirectly hurting others. A simple example is sloppy craftsmanship leading to someone getting hurt. A very common problem is people who burn themselves out being too nice in the moment, which leads to reducing how many people they can help in the long run. That’s why I teach we should never “Give until it hurts,” but to “Give what’s appropriate (without enabling bad behavior or hurting ourselves).” Women tend to be the most likely culprits for this as they are naturally more thoughtful and generous than men, but their desire to help everyone can lead to burning out and/or being too exhausted to be nice at home. Good people are nice some of the time while the best people can be nice to a point all the time including with family.
- Pain caused by circumstances: Weather, the economy, inflation… all things out of our hands.
- Pain caused by the way life works:.. yeah, there are rules to gravity. Cartoons taught me to watch out for falling anvils and pianos because gravity will cause them to fall to the ground, and it’s best not to get between them and the ground. They have a fatal attraction to each other… at least it’s fatal to anyone who gets in the way. That being said, I’m yet to find any falling or fallen anvils or pianos in the streets. It might help that I’m not a road runner. Regardless, there are rules to life that we have to respect or we can get burned, drowned, eaten by a wild animal, or have allergies (the latter probably not as much of a problem as the former). Even with life, giving birth hurts… I assume or it’s one impressive conspiracy by women to fake it. Aging and death are painful realities to life, but at the same time they make birth that much more exciting.
This week may you consider how you can better reduce and understand your own pain.
Rev. Chad David, ChadDavid.ca, learning to love dumb people (like me)